As the release of Toy Story 4 this week reminds us of the visual mastery, emotional complexity, and genuine humour that animated films are capable of, along comes The Secret Life of Pets 2 to counterbalance that impression with all the syrupy density of a sugary treat, one you bribe your children with in the hopes it’ll keep them satisfied for an extended period of time.
Coincidentally, the first Pets film arguably based itself off the structure of the first Toy Story film, focusing on the lives of animals and all the G-rated shenanigans they got up to behind the closed doors of their owners. It played alarmingly well to both critics (73% on Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences (it grossed a staggering $875 million globally), so a second go-around seems fitting.
Foregoing the “lost-in-the-big-city” temperament that the original film adhered to, Pets 2 aims for a bit more of a bizarre situational storytelling structure, splitting its ensemble amongst three separate stories; there’s Jack Russell Terrier Max (voiced by Patton Oswald, replacing Louis C.K.) and his shaggy Newfoundland mix buddy Duke (Eric Stonestreet) learning how to be stronger dogs from the gruff Sheepdog Rooster (Harrison Ford); princess-type Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate) immersing herself into cat culture through the apathetic tabby cat Chloe (Lake Bell); and, in the film’s most outlandish story arc, energised white rabbit Snowball (Kevin Hart) teaming up with the sassy Shih Tzu Daisy (Tiffany Haddish) in a bid to free an abused tiger from the clutches of an evil circus performer, Sergei (Nick Kroll).
As their own story entities, they aren’t particularly strong, as a cohesive unit, well…again, not very strong, but at least their vast differences give the film a mild sense of young audience-appropriate excitement. They’re cartoon episodes for a kid-friendly TV show essentially, and as Pets 2 seems comfortable not aiming for emotional depth, so too should the intended audience; effective animated storytelling ala Inside Out this is not!
Tailor made for young, non-fussy children through and through, parents are unlikely to find much here to keep them entertained, nor will they be served with a message to instil to their young ones. Yes, Pets 2 is very much satisfied in taking wide-eyed animals (admittedly, they are quite cute to look at) and throwing them on the screen amongst low-brow humour and absurdity and hoping it’ll stick; Gidget’s various attempts at making herself more feline manages to raise a few giggles however, and Haddish’s voice work is colourful, though subdued given the genre.
Adults will get little out of it, and children are likely to forget it once they’ve left the theatres, but if you need 85 minutes to keep the little ones somewhat entertained – assuming there’s a reason you haven’t chosen Toy Story 4 instead – The Secret Life of Pets 2 does just enough of the trick to keep their senses occupied. Just.